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I-70 Plan May Not Need Cuts

Contracting for major highway projects promised to West Virginia voters in exchange for their approval of a $1.6 billion bond package has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride for state officials — including one big free-fall drop involving Interstate 70 in Ohio County.

During the past couple of weeks, Gov. Jim Justice has announced awarding of contracts for four big projects, in Berkeley, Lewis, Mercer and Wyoming counties.

What is interesting about the four contracts, totaling about $196 million, is that winning bids for two were above estimates made prior to the bond issue vote last year, while bids for two were below predictions. In total, the four projects will be completed for about $20.6 million less than had been expected.

Unfortunately, that was not the case with the I-70 plan, by far the biggest one on the bond issue list. It calls for extensive repairs and replacements of bridges, along with several miles of paving.

State officials had hoped the work could be completed for $201 million. The lowest bid was $275.2 million. That prompted Justice to call for “a review and evaluation to change the scope of the project” before new bids are sought.

Corners will be cut to get the price tag down.

Virtually any construction project in the $200 million range includes some items that can be cut out without sacrificing much quality. But whacking $75 million out of the I-70 plan is likely to mean compromises involving safety.

That need not happen. The $20.6 million in lower-than-expected bids for the four other projects is, in effect, found money for the Division of Highways.

In addition to that, there has been good news from the state Budget Office. During the first three months of the fiscal year, general revenue fund income was $119 million higher than had been expected. If that trend continues, the state may have ample cash to provide more than originally planned to the DOH, for a variety of maintenance and repair work — including I-70.

Does that mean Justice and the DOH should go ahead and award that $275 million contract?

Of course not. But what it does mean is there is no reason for them to gut the I-70 proposal to get the cost down to $201 million.

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